Although it may seem irresponsible to teach people how to abuse power, I see it all the time. So, either they are learning on their own or they are following what might be considered “natural behavior”.
Brains are lazy. That is the natural state.
Making the intellectual effort to leap beyond the simple explanation and accepting a belief is difficult and unnatural. Courtesy of Bob Carroll, let’s call it the “unnatural virtue”. It is our natural behavior to attend first to our own needs and to rely on the explanation that is easiest to believe, not necessarily what is true.
In leadership the easiest way to lead is to use power like a weapon. It may be effective at first, but in the long run things will go bad one way or another.
So… what are the steps to cult leadership and how can we prevent the damage?
Step 1 – It’s all about me
A good cult leader knows that she/he is the group and the group is he/she.
The important differentiation between indiscriminate power and leadership comes from the motivation of the power broker. Is the goal of the power self-oriented or work related?
The cult leader will, ultimately, benefit personally from every decision.
As I often point out, in the real world it is complicated… complicated because there is the gray spectrum when a decision is good both for the group and the person. But, at what point along the spectrum is a decision or action too beneficial for the leader at the expense of the group? When deception is involved, judgement is even more difficult.
In normal life, the potentially worse bosses are those who try to build a personality cult around themselves at the office. The problem is that they are not as smart or clever as they believe they are and the group infighting for the boss’ favor destroys cohesion.
Step 2 – Empathy gap
A good cult leader knows what is best for everyone and must decide on the best outcome for everyone (see Step 1, Rule 2) without regard for an individual. After all, for omelets you need eggs.
The empathy gap is that distance between a person’s decision and the ability to understand how that decision will effect another person. The greater the distance, the less the empathy. When the distance is so great that there is no empathy, anything can happen.
In an absolute totalitarian regime there is no mental conflict because there is no empathy.
There are interesting dynamic when groups overlap. In today’s political climate Russia’s Vladimir Putin has determined a broad scale international policy that has no regard for the opinions of other countries. He seems to have no empathy for the effects of his policies and does not seem to care. From our point of view – bad.
But, Putin’s domestic popularity has never been better, at least for now. From his point of view – good.
As a leader, you need to be aware of the effect of your decisions on others. There will be times when a hard decision will be detrimental to another. The best you can do for them is to communicate clearly and treat them in a fair, dignified way.
You must be also aware of other leaders and their empathy levels. This is part of your power game to find support and allies. You may need to fight for yourself, resources, or on behalf of others who depend on you.
Check out Jon Ronson’s “The Psychopath Test: A Journey through the Madness Industry”. He covers in great and humorous details how some high functioning psychopaths operate in modern society.
Step 3 – Deceit
A good cult leader never deceives because everything spoken is true because it was spoken by the cult leader.
The real difficulty with deception is that it is deceptive.
How can you recognize deception when the practiced deceiver will always build in enough truth to provide a level of deniability? The problem too is that this level of deception is probably not illegal or immoral, but what makes it harmful are the unnecessary delays and the draining of resources.
I am sure you have seen this form of deception, but you did not recognize it in its cloaked form or maybe excused the deception as “hardball”.
I witnessed an interesting example of subtle deception as it unfolded through email:
The issue at hand was the development of a customer service (CS) department. The project assigned to the operations manager was to research and staff a 25 person CS group. The reasoning was that since most customer issues were related to operational conditions, the most logical choice was the operations manager. However… the marketing manager was not onboard with that decision.
The marketing manager was of the opinion that customer service was a marketing responsibility as a function of customer loyalty and company branding… Reasonable.
25 more people would more than double the marketing department. Now there was also the possibility of a reasonable justification to evolve from marketing manager to vice president of marketing… self-interest.
The marketing manager’s campaign was a series of emails. Whenever the operations manager published a status report, the marketing manager responded with questions pointing out issues regarding, for example, customer loyalty and customer profiling for promotional purposes. These emails expanded the conversation beyond resolving the problems of the customers’ pain. The project was delayed 3 months as its mission began to evolve. The project became more of a negotiation with the marketing department at the expense of everyone including the customers.
I had an exit briefing with the COO when my assignment was ending with the company. The project was not part of my responsibility, but I did mention the practical loss of time and the frustration of the delay I witnessed. I wish I could say there was a tidy and happy ending. The COO’s response was basically let them fight it out. Bad choice.
I mentioned earlier that it is difficult to directly measure if power is being used for self-interest or for the group’s benefit. So, you have to measure the result indirectly – is the action, conflict, or controversy helping the group or harming the group? Were the delays of the customer service project better for the company or worse for the company? Not everything can be immediately quantified to money, but the more business question is “is value created or lost?”
Step 4 – Transparency
A good cult leader limits members contact with outsiders. They are, after all, evil/corrupt/impure.
In every circumstance of power abuse, the first act is to cut off communications with the outside. It eliminates social signaling and constricts information flow. Isolation, hopelessness, and helplessness are the goals so members must feel there are no alternatives. In-group reliance is a powerful social force that the lack of other options almost guarantees compliance.
Transparency is defeated by sequestering the population from outside information that would otherwise refute the source of their power. Transparency is an important feature to leadership because the stakeholders will always want to confirm that everything is done in a fair manner.
For example, legitimate leadership power sourced from the punishment (coercion), reward, or access to information can acceptable if the perception is that the process is consistent, fair, and judicious. The group must not only have a mean to express grievance, but the ability to express their opinions will fulfill their need for control.
Step 5 – Accountability
A good cult leader is their own final authority.
They preemptively claim there exists no higher levels of authority support their authority with raw violence, divine rights of rule, or divine providence. The beauty of a good cult is that there is no testability – ever.
The final boundary may be the most important, accountability. The source of accountability should always be external. It may come from several sources: social mores, ethical considerations, legal or regulatory injunctions, or censure from higher levels of authority (senior executives, boards, shareholders, etc.).
It is the combination of transparency and accountability that governs the corruption of power. Transparency sends the message of corruption and accountability provides the reckoning. Both dictatorships and cults will disrupt transparency and accountability as much as possible. They preempt dissent through the logic of raw violence, divine rights of rule, or divine providence.
In other words…
object and you die
or… object and you will suffer eternally.
SURPRISE BONUS STEP
I’ve always been disturbed by “leaders” who confuse power and leadership. They use the circular reasoning of their power to excuse the abuses that follow. I cannot say categorically that everyone with power becomes corrupted, but over the long‑term, power tends to create a distance between people. That distance leads to less empathy and more entitlement. Leadership is no longer valued and power is coin of the realm.
We cannot avoid the fact that leadership is part of the power game. I am always pressing on a specific definition leadership. In the absence of a precise definition, we accept any use or abuse of power as “leadership” regardless of the ethical consideration or long-term destruction (value, morale, continuity, etc.). That is not leadership. That is indiscriminate power.
It is mandatory that senior leaders alleviate the self-serving behaviors of power and highlight the leadership’s benefits to the service of group. When abusive power is recognized as leadership, then it becomes acceptable behavior. The abusive behavior of upper management trickles down the leadership hierarchy as acceptable behavior to gain favor or promotion. Then the games begin. There no winners, there are survivors.
I was only half joking when I suggested you could build a cult with these tools. Taken in the extreme, personality cults and dictatorships are result of power unchecked and they gain their power in exactly the way I describe. My goal was to give a means to detect abuses and offer strategies to limit the negative outcomes. Leaders must understanding the power game and the power landscape. Power will define the limits and sources of a leader’s power.
Power is like any tool. How you use that power is up to you. Always remember what Uncle Ben told Peter Parker. If you don’t know, go look it up. (Ok, maybe Uncle Ben got it from Voltaire, still… go look.)
 “Power and Organization Development”, Larry E. Greiner and Virginia Schein, Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1988